Real iTunes killer: Review of Amazon’s DRM-less music download store

September 25, 2007

The real iTunes killer: Review of Amazon's DRM-less music download storeAmazon’s long awaited DRM-less music download store just hit the web, and, for a moment there, I thought it might have become vaporware. Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case, giving me a chance to put the store through its paces. Here’s my review of the Amazon MP3 Download Store.

Amazon is going out on a limb here, offering DRM-less MP3 tracks at 256kbps at $0.89 per song. DRM-less music download stores have been done before, but they usually lack in music selection. Amazon is looking to change the music download world by giving users the opportunity to do anything they want with their music while offering a huge selection of both popular and unpopular/underground artists, but does it do this well?

Selection: What does it offer?

Because of my past experience with DRM-less music stores, I was expecting disappointment when I started searching for artists. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Amazon turned up multiple albums for nearly every artist I typed into the search box, and, for the few that it didn’t find, it offered physical CDs for purchase through Amazon’s traditional store.

Some of the artists I found include: Immortal Technique, Barry White, Kanye West, Sublime, Snoop Dog, NWA Minus the Bear, Psycostick, Royksopp, Sinai Beach, Yellowman, Madonna, Eminem, Paul Oakenfold, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, Underoath, Maroon 5, The Rolling Stones, He is Legend, Johnny Cash, and more.

Unfortunately, and this would be expected from any download store, I was unable to find a significant amount of the much smaller bands that I listen to; however, the MP3 Download Store is still in beta form with new content being added every day. Regardless, the selection is overall impressive.

Pricing: Is it worth it?

Pricing for an individual song is $0.89 as opposed to iTunes, which offers singles at $0.99 a piece. Albums range anywhere from under two dollars to over over $20.

Generally, I found pricing to be the same as or less than what is offered in the iTunes store. For example, DJ Tiesto’s Just Be goes for $6.99 on Amazon’s MP3 Download Store, but it goes for $9.99 at the iTunes store. However, Paul van Dyk’s Global costs $12.99 at both stores. Never did I find an album to be more expensive at the Amazon store and I wouldn’t expect it as Amazon is strongly going after value.

An added benefit of downloading your music via Amazon as opposed to iTunes is the lack of DRM. Most of iTunes’ music comes encoded with DRM, preventing you from using YOUR music on anything other than an iPod or the computer to which the music is registered.

iTunes music also comes in AAC format at 192kbps, a music format that is not supported on many other devices. Amazon’s music comes in MP3 format at 256kps, a format that is largely supported on other devices and the higher bitrate provides for better sound quality. In fairness, I should note that Apple offers a small portion of their content DRM-free at 256kbps AAC, but that only applies to any music from the record label EMI.

The Download Experience

In order to download music via Amazon, you first have to install the Amazon download manager, which is required for albums but not for singles. The installation was really easy on my iMac, which only required a few clicks and not even a drag-and-drop to the Applications folder. I’m sure the process would have been just as easy on a Windows machine.

Similar to iTunes, Amazon lets you preview most tracks before you download them. This came in really hand as I searched for an album to purchase.

I found Pauk van Dyk’s Global, tested it, and went through with the purchase. I already had an Amazon account, so all I had to do is click the “Buy MP3 album with 1-Click” and it was mine. When you purchase an album, your computer downloads a very small file. Normally, you can open this file automatically in the Amazon download manager without it touching your desktop, but I accidentally downloaded it directly to my desktop. I simply double clicked the file, and the manager opened up.

The time it took to download the songs took a bit longer than expected. I was expecting it to be just as quick as iTunes, but that was not the case. Although, faster than anything I’ve ever experienced downloading via P2P, the slower-than-iTunes download speed could have been attributed to my college network being on overhaul around this time of the day, mid afternoon. Either way, it took about 10-15 minutes to download Global, which consists of 10 eight minute songs. As each song finished downloading, the download manager placed the files conveniently in their correct artist and album folders in my iTunes music folder.

Here’s the Deal

The Amazon MP3 Download Store is absolutely great. Even in it’s beta stage I can confidently call it the best online download store – period.

Simply the fact that it offers its vast selection of music without DRM makes it better than iTunes, and iTunes doesn’t stand a chance when it comes to pricing. There’s also no monthly fee, a feature that gives eMusic great value but forces you to pay the fee up front every month, which could easily go to waste as my problem with eMusic is that I could hardly find anything of interest to me.

Apple better act quick if it wants to keep up because, as of today, all that’s going for the iTunes Store is its popularity. DRM on music is dead, and any company that doesn’t understand that is going to get left in the dust. But those that embrace the changing times are going to be looking at a profitable future.

 

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33 Responses to “Real iTunes killer: Review of Amazon’s DRM-less music download store”

  1. ffass:

    I love this new music service! The reviewer commented that the download speed was slower than iTunes, but 1st album (Fountains of Wayne’s “Traffic and Weather”) downloaded in under 2 minutes. I have a fast cable connection. NO DRM & 256 kbps kicks iTunes out the back door!

  2. Jeff:

    Just for accuracy’s sake: iTunes DRM-free dwonloads are 256kbps AAC, not 192kbps as stated in the article.

  3. Danny Mendez:

    I’m sorry, you’re right. iTunes DRM-free downloads are 256kbps, but the majority of their content, which has DRM, is 192kbps. I was only addressing their DRM music downloads when I wrote that since that’s the nearly all of what’s on iTunes. I have corrected the article to address this.

  4. Michael Brian Bentley:

    I am curious whether you listened to and compared the audio quality between the same recordings available in Amazon MP3 format, iTunes AAC, and a CD with the audio?

    When I listened to some of the samples provided by Amazon, the audio sounded very tinny in several cases. Hey, its a beta.

    I think Amazon’s achievement here is very strong, very promising.

    I don’t completely understand what terms the content providers are working with under Amazon’s pricing schedule. I can understand that Amazon’s offer prices being lower than iTunes, since iTunes is still the only game in town (Amazon’s MP3 service is still beta) and you don’t lower prices unless market conditions force you to do so. I would like to know what amount from the sale price goes to the content providers? Is it significantly higher from Amazon than it is from iTunes? I’d like to understand the differences because of comments from the content providers saying that the terms to work with iTunes are outrageous. Many of those content providers are obviously working with Amazon.

  5. Ian:

    I think it all comes down to selection not quality or even DRM. If you can’t buy *virtually* any song you want, the service will not succeed in the way iTunes has.

    That said it is intriguing that you can order missing content via physical media and with all the label friction with iTunes there may be hope for Amazon yet.

  6. Eric:

    Piece of junk. I use Firefox and Winamp and it would not play samples.

  7. Mike:

    “I can confidently call it the best online download store – period.”

    Well, I can confidently say that you must have never seen our download store, acaTunes, the ultimate download site for independent vocal music.

    Check it out, and check out a few other indie download sites before you limit yourself to the mainstream…

    Mike

  8. Danny Mendez:

    To Michael Brian Bentley:

    I haven’t compared the same songs in different formats, but what you hear when you listen to the samples is not from the MP3 file. Those samples are very highly compressed so that they load quickly. The MP3 files sound much much better.

    To Eric:

    I just used Firefox to listen to a sample. I’m not sure what the problem is.

  9. Andy Pastuszak:

    In Apple’s defense, EMI is the only label ALLOWING Apple to remove the DRM from their music. Apple never wanted DRM in the first place.

  10. Terence Lee:

    If I’m not wrong, AAC encoding is of higher quality than an Mp3 file of the same bitrate, so the DRM-free version (256kbps AAC) offered by iTunes is probably of better quality than the Amazon one (256kbps Mp3).

  11. Another Jeff:

    To Terence:
    Even if it’s of a bit higher quality, there’s a major difference in price and privacy between Apple’s DRM-free music, and Amazon’s DRM free music. Apple’s contains various information about the user who purchased the music, including your name and email address. Not exactly something I like to keep in my music files.

    Source: http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20070530-apple-hides-account-info-in-drm-free-music-too.html

  12. el jefe:

    >In Apple’s defense, EMI is the only label
    >ALLOWING Apple to remove the DRM from
    >their music. Apple never wanted DRM in the
    >first place.

    Thats baloney, Steve Jobs is trying to rewrite history with that concept.

    How well does this work with Linux, does anyone know? I use eMusic now, but I agree that it can be hard to find what I am looking for.

  13. Sandy:

    Clarifications and Corrections:

    1. Tracks at iTunes are $0.99 AAC @ 128kbps w/ DRM, or $1.99 AAC @ 256kbps w/out DRM

    2. Have you checked your MP3s from Amazon to make sure they have no identifying information embedded in them?

    3. Works fine in Firefox (Mac here)

    I really like this service, and hope the selection grows quickly so I can stop using iTunes for most purchases (removing DRM is a pain).

  14. Dmitriy Kropivnitskiy:

    1. $0.89 is still too much
    2. Is there a linux version of the downloader?
    3. Long live mp3sparks

  15. Bobby:

    The only identifying information is the Amazon song number in the comments field.

    This is the best quality with universal acceptance that we will get from a download store until someone goes lossless or 320 Mp3.

  16. Pakk99:

    Um, for the record 128-bit AAC is easily on par with 256-bit MP3 in terms of music quality. There are other factors affecting sound quality beyond just the bit rate. Also, 256-bit AAC absolutely kills 256-bit MP3 for sound fidelity. Learn a little something about sound before offering a misleading comparison.

  17. Danny Mendez:

    Yes, that’s what some people say, but only the people with the most sensitive hearing who are looking for differences could tell the difference on speakers/headphones an average consumer would use. Those differences, however, could be affected by Apple’s attempt to rewrite the history books in claiming that their (highly limited and DRM-able) file format is “superior”.

    I’ve heard that AAC is better, and I’ve seen test results in which people conclude that MP3 is better bitrate for bitrate. The matter of the fact is that MP3 at 256kbps sounds really great, lacks DRM, and is highly supported.

  18. Danny Mendez:

    For the record, I’m not anti-Apple. I love Apple. I own a MacBook Pro, the new iMac, and the iPod Touch, but I can recognize when a company like Apple tries to spin that their product is better.

    Have you read the book 1984?

    1984 Government:
    “Freedom is Slavery”

    Apple:
    “AAC is better than MP3″
    “Web apps are better than an open platform for iPhone”
    “EDGE ‘is great’ for the iPhone”

    Yes, eat into Apple’s lies.

  19. MikeFM:

    Unless they can offer DRM-free, extremely low cost, MP3s it’s still easier and cheaper to download the music from free file sharing services. When I get music I don’t download a song – I download every song the musician has done. This way, I discover a lot of good content I otherwise wouldn’t have known I was even interested in. I often download artists I’ve never even heard of just to see if I like their stuff. I like being able to just Google the artist and a few seconds later be downloading their entire discography at breakneck speeds with BitTorrent.

    Let me download stuff for free and then try to upsell me. I’d often buy a CD, DVD, poster, tshirt, etc for artists I like. e.g. I spent hundreds of dollars this year buying Weird Al’s latest CD, concert tickets, tshirts, hats, and various other collectibles despite the fact that I’d downloaded his new music and videos before his CD was offically released. I especially am likely to buy stuff from artists I like that don’t make me feel like a criminal for downloading their content – my way of making sure they keep that opinion. I’m considering buying a lot of NIN stuff since they came out supporting downloading of their content. I’d go so far as to make a direct donation to them if they had a place on their website to do it.

  20. Josh:

    I’ve not had too much of a problem with iTunes and the DRM since I mainly listen to my music thru my computer or my iPod (which is with me 95% of the time). If I need an MP3 version of a song or album, I burn the disc and re-rip it. (The disc gets made anyways for backup.) I’ve supported iTunes hard stance on keeping their songs priced at $0.99 ea. because you hear about those record companies that try to charge more for “hits” or “popular” music. It just seems like when people try to cut in line because they “know somebody.”
    However, if Amazon can offer the same convenience of online purchasing with the same selection at a lower price, I may be switching over. Since I’ve been able to sit at my computer and instantly find a song that was played on the TV show I was watching or was just told about in an email, I’ve been buying music like crazy these past couple of years. Most of the music are artists you probably wouldn’t find at Target or Wal-Mart or they cost $3-5 more at BestBuy if you’re lucky enough that they carry it. As of right now, Amazon cannot match iTunes’ selection for the music I’m into. Most of it is not mainstream, but it’s not local stuff either. These artists are easily recognizable to anyone reading magazines like SPIN, Rolling Stone, Paste, etc. (eg: Wilco, Peter Bjorn & John, Rascal Flatts, Rilo Kiley, Bjork, Damien Rice, Tegan & Sara). I went thru and searched on Amazon for albums I’ve purchased in the past 4 months and only found 16 out of 41. So, I’ll be keeping an eye on Amazon, but until they catch up, I’m sticking with iTunes.

    And to comment on the speed of download, I did a small test on a couple of singles from either site and found them to be comparable with iTunes still going a bit faster (~11.3 seconds/mb compared to Amazon’s ~14.5 s/mb). Overall, the songs from Amazon did take longer, but they were also larger (probably attributed to the larger bitrate).

  21. Walter F. Nickeson:

    This review completely ignored the search experience, which is horrendous. As an example, I typed “barracuda” in the MP3 Download search box. The results? Two bands were listed with the word “barracuda” in their names. What if I had intended to find a song I thought I heard called “barracuda”, but couldn’t remember the artist? There’s no option to make a search more specific than general keyword. Further, in the results list of songs, sorting by song title, artist name, album title, or even song length is not an option. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, or are just browsing to see what you run across, searching Amazon MP3 Downloads is very frustrating. Limiting and filtering searches and results is vital. The lack of such options really detracts from Amazon’s service.

  22. Danny Mendez:

    I’m sorry about not focusing more on the search experience. For me, as with many other users, it was very easy to find what we were looking for, but you’ve mentioned some features that would be neat to see made part of the store. Perhaps I’ll send Amazon a suggestion to add filtering options when searching.

  23. Otter:

    I don’t know any of you but I had to jump in with a comment here.

    This is the first time in 10+ years I’ve paid for music in any form… and man… I love it. It’s truly WORTH IT! iTunes was never worth the cost because you couldn’t do what you wanted/needed to do with your own music that you paid for. iTunes plus? c’mon… I have to pay more and I still have to install stinky iTunes?

    This is basic in concept and awesome in practice. Their search system could use a little fine-tuning but after a couple clicks I’ve so far managed to find every CD I wanted that was available for download (some still are not, but they’re adding more every day). The Amazon download software has been rip-roaringly fast for a 256k file and the files themselves are beautiful. I don’t care if my name is encoded into the header of the file because I’m not going to share it… it’s all mine! but damn.. at least I can put it on my mp3 player, take it home, put it on my media center computer, put it on my work computer, play it in my car cd-player, leave a copy at Church if I need to do some work there after hours and just happen to want to play it over the av system, etc…

    Applauds to Amazon for pulling the record companies into this kicking and screaming… finally someone who was able to make it happen!

    Because of this service I have sworn discontinue torrent and other forms of p2p use all together for acquiring media content. No more guilt = win!

  24. Terrence:

    Apple will still make money.
    Everybody is just following the bouncing business model.

  25. James:

    As other commenters have pointed out, regular iTunes is AAC @ 128 kbps, not 192 kbps. (Check Wikipedia.) Also, at the same bit rate, AAC is superior to MP3, but at 256 kbps audio is pretty much transparent for both formats.

    For a long time I was buying my songs from RealPlayer, because they were offering AAC @ 192 kbps. That was the highest audio quality available for quite a while. It’s good to see Amazon, Real, and Apple moving to 256 kbps.

  26. Glenn:

    Unfortunatly amazon mp3 downloads do not seem to have toc so my cd player does not tell me the name of
    the song it is playing

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